Third World Hero (1999)

A docu-fiction that explores the process of history’s becoming as De Leon boldly if cheekily subjects his country’s anti-colonialist national hero, Jose Rizal, to an artistic interrogation, yielding interesting takeaways on art’s discourse with the past.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,586

Dir. Mike De Leon
1999 | Philippines | Drama/History | 93 mins | 1.85:1 | Tagalog
PG13 (passed clean)

Cast: Ricky Davao, Joel Torre, Cris Villanueva
Plot: Part-investigative documentary, part-satire and shot entirely in black-and-white, the film tackles the mystery that surrounds the life and death of the Filipino hero, Jose Rizal.
Source: Solar Pictures

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Interrogating History; Myths & Heroes; Religious Faith
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: Screener (as part of Asian Film Archive’s Mike De Leon retrospective)
Spoilers: No

For more info on the Mike De Leon retrospective in Singapore:

A later career work by Mike De Leon, one of the Philippines’ preeminent directors, Third World Hero explores the crossroads of history and art by posing a meta-filmic enquiry: how does one tackle a revered historical subject through the medium of cinema? 

De Leon unsurprisingly eschews the conventions of the biopic; instead, he finds the creative license to deconstruct the myth of Jose Rizal, his country’s highly-celebrated anti-colonialist national hero. 

Executed in 1896 for inspiring local rebellion against the Spanish oppressors, Rizal’s story has been the subject of a number of film and television projects.  But there’s nothing quite like Third World Hero’s docu-fictive approach in Philippine cinema, one that boldly if cheekily calls for a different way to broach what could be a sensitive topic. 

“A country without heroes has no history.”

Shot in black-and-white which preserves the film’s liberal play with time as two filmmakers argue about how to best portray Rizal cinematically, and in many instances, insert themselves into history by speaking to Rizal and those who knew him, including his family, lover and even the priests that persuaded him to recant and return to his Catholic faith before his execution.

Occasionally annoying their subjects with their nosy inquiries over historical inaccuracies, these filmmakers’ artistic interrogation in a film-within-a-film structure broken into intertitled segments, does yield some interesting takeaways on art’s discourse with the past. 

How do we come to terms with the truths and distortions of history?  Or perhaps more valuably, can artifice, a technique De Leon uses liberally, allow artists to exhaust multiple, contradicting interpretations?

Grade: A-

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